The Accessibility Cookbook: A Recipe for Disaster

~ 12 November 2007 ~

It’s one thing to lecture on and study the topic of accessibility, but it’s an entirely different thing to see it first hand.

Aaron Cannon, blind since birth, is an interaction designer with whom I have the privilege of working. Not only is Aaron witty and intelligent, he’s also pretty knowledgeable about accessibility and even kicks out some pretty good code, too. True, Aaron is probably more adept than the average blind web user, but his first-hand experience with accessibility and the web puts him in a position to offer practical advice for welcoming disabled users.

It is this very idea of practical accessibility about which Aaron writes in his article, The Accessibility Cookbook: A Recipe for Disaster. Drawing parallels between cooking bread and creating accessible websites, Aaron reminds us that things aren’t as convoluted (or ideal) as we make them out to be:

And so, the myth is perpetuated that bread making is a very complex process, the inner-workings of which can only be understood by those bakers with a doctorate in breadology. They forget that our ancestors (a few of whom had to be at least slightly dumber than they are) made bread on a regular basis with no problems.

He continues:

It has been my experience that many people who learn about accessibility are led down a similar path as would-be bread bakers. They are handed a recipe and told, ‘This is what you are to do, and if you don’t do this exactly, those crazy disability advocates will come after you with their blood-thirsty lawyers.’ They are told things like, ‘mark headings up as such,’ and ‘put skip-to-content links at the top of pages.’ What all too often is not mentioned is why.

Just last week Aaron dispelled a common misperception for me personally as he reviewed my code from a recent project, finding I had provided alt text for nearly every image and icon on the page. What Aaron articulates in his article is roughly the point he articulated with me:

… it is a common misconception that every image on a page should include an alt attribute with a verbose description. In actuality, only images with important information should be provided with descriptions, and those should be as brief as possible. For example, if there was an image which said ‘50% off this week on all orders over $50’, then that should clearly be provided with alternative text. However, if there was a picture of a man using a particular product, I’m really not interested in hearing ‘picture of a man looking pleased as punch to be using the new ultra-lite USB hair drier,’ or worse, ‘picture of a man.’

Yes, every image should include the alt attribute (even if the value is blank), but Aaron’s point is that he need not hear attribute values read by his screen reader if it doesn’t add value to the experience or content.

At any rate, the real takeaway for me from Aaron’s article is to be practical when addressing accessibility, bulletproofing, SEO, or any other technique we read about or hear at conferences:

So, in short, learn all you can about the why of accessibility, and then go do your best. Most of the time, it will probably be good enough, and almost certainly better than if you just blindly follow a recipe.

(In addition to the book Aaron recommends, also consider Just Ask: Integrating Accessibility Throughout Design by Shawn Henry, which is replete with first-hand knowledge and recommendations.)



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1   Nik Lazell ~ 12 November 2007

Totally agree.. I’m definately guilty of adding elements like skip-to-content links without actually asking myself why.

2   Lauren Scime ~ 12 November 2007

I definitely agree. Following a predetermined recipe for accessibility makes for a lot of bad choices. I’ve definitely found that th best wat to check a site for blind accessibility is to go through the whole thing eyes shut with a screen reader and assess how it can be improved.

3   patrick h. lauke ~ 12 November 2007

Couldn’t agree more. Accessibility is not the simple rote mastery of cast-in-stone tenets, or following checklists of WCAG, or cargo-culting. Also, it’s a sliding scale…not just an either/or proposition. The major problems, though, are:
a) some developers simply see accessibility as something they need to do to satisfy some policy or bullet point in a requirements document - they have no interest in actually understanding the implications, and see it as another one of those pesky steps like HTML validation…a purely technical exercise - run it through some automated validator and hope for a thumbs-up.
b) some developers are really well-meaning, but also don’t understand the issues and follow some dogmatic-sounding advice from loud-mouthed proponents (the ones that can argue for days about why content before presentation should always be implemented, or why every site needs its own text resize widgets or risk being deemed inaccessible). that’s the gist of my “too much accessibility - good intentions, badly implemented” presentation (sadly no transcript yet, but audio and accessile slides).
c) “Also, how will they know when they’ve botched it. The only real way to know would be to […] ask a disabled user to test it.” that’s not always easy or possible, particularly on quick jobs with small to non-existent budget for actual user acceptance etc testing.

4   Simon Kitson ~ 12 November 2007

Funny you should post this now as I’m currently working on a site that the RNIB (Royal National Institute of Blind People) here in the UK are giving the once over.

They made the exactly same point about not requiring the alt text for every single image - something I’d blindly (no pun intended) been doing none the wiser.

Aaron’s article is excellent.

5   Robert Spangler ~ 12 November 2007

I am so guilty of ‘picture of a man.’…I’m really glad that you posted this.

6   Christopher Phillips ~ 12 November 2007

Aaron’s article also made an impression on me over the weekend- it is refreshing to hear good, practical, sensible advice.

Also relevant to this discussion is Jared Smith’s post addressing the discussion of the HTML 5 Working Group to drop the requirement for alt text on decorative images altogether. As noted in the linked article, too often empty alt text is the result of ignorant coding rather than someone who has carefully considered whether an image adds content value to a page.

A best effort from anyone to create accessible content goes a long ways- unfortunately too many people choose to purposefully abuse or be ignorant of techniques intended to create more accessible content. How do you convince someone who doesn’t care that, going along with Aaron’s metaphor, the bread is worth cooking?

7   Richard Rutter ~ 13 November 2007

Aaron’s point is that he need not hear attribute values read by his screen reader if it doesn’t add value to the experience or content.

This brings up the other issue with accessibility. Not only is it a sliding scale, as Patrick quite rightly points out, it is also partly subjective, even among people with the same disability.

I have been in discussion with blind JAWS users who stated that they would like to hear alt text for (just about) every image, so at least they can work out what they’re missing. That said, I think this view is probably due to the overall poor use of alt text around the web, and generally I would err towards Aaron’s point.

8   Justin ~ 13 November 2007

After I had been working with the web for a few years I tried to ask myself every time I put an image on a page what use it was. Certainly one of the mistakes I see all over is having an image just for decoration and with no link. The image should be utilitarian along with nice to look at in my book.

I think that while working towards producing good content you should strive in most cases to only use an image if you can link it to somewhere else/additional content. An image for image sake is not good enough. I ask myself what does the image represent and then link to that content.

I’ve also found that as I’ve been developing with semantic markup and tableless design that I use much fewer in-line images that would clutter the reading to the blind and those using aural browsers.

Thanks for the info Cameron, it’s great to get real-world practical advise.

9   Simon Pioli ~ 13 November 2007

I interact with partially-sighted and blind people quite frequently through my role as a referee for Goalball.

The issue of accessibility on the web has come up, including the use of Alt tags. Generally, as pointed out in the article, they are very important to help give an overall picture of the website but, not TOO many so as to make the experience seem tedious and boring.

My favourite use that someone mentioned was an image that was tagged with “This image is not important.”.
What are your views on using the alt tag in this manner? I thought it was a rather comedy thing to do and probably not a good idea, though, after reading this, I’m not so sure.

Should you leave the Alt blank when an image is unimportant, or state the fact?

10   Andre ~ 14 November 2007

Ah thanks for the hint. Seems to be a very good book about accessibility. I’ll go and get it. :-)

11   Handy ~ 13 April 2008

Thanks for the advice. I try to provide better accessibility for my website, so this article is an excellent source for me.

12   Max ~ 27 April 2008

I think that while working towards producing good content you should strive in most cases to only use an image if you can link it to somewhere else/additional content. An image for image sake is not good enough. I ask myself what does the image represent and then link to that content.


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